One of the reasons why independent filmmaking is so important is because it allows for the self-expression of powerful, creative individuals who might not have had the opportunity otherwise. Yes, through cinematic storytelling, these individuals show up as leaders and visionaries, diversifying the filmmaking landscape and giving way to the exploration of new ideas, new experiences and different points of view. And for 19 successful years, the Los Angeles Film Festival- produced by the 501(c)(3) non-profit arts organization Film Independent- has granted independent filmmakers the opportunity to showcase their work before the invaluable Los Angeles community as well as industry decision-makers, turning what was once an ideal into an attainable reality for thousands.
Taking place over ten days in Downtown Los Angeles, it’s an event where new talent is discovered, deals are made, audiences are challenged and participating filmmakers experience expanded results for their efforts. And for the community of aspiring filmmakers, the festival serves as an inciting incident in the screenplays that are their lives- prompting them to take action- then educating them on exactly what action to take through their plethora of informational speaking engagements and networking events.
It was during Master Class with Maya Rudolph, for example, where the Saturday Night Live alumni exposed how physical comedy, combined with the perfect joke and comedic timing, all work together to make us laugh. And audiences were regaled by lessons and anecdotes from Oscar-nominated Director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, Fighter), during the Conversations series. And then there was Diversity Speaks, the open-forum event where content creators of color discussed methods for succeeding in the film business while holding on to cultural identities.
Yes, it was an enchanted two weeks of inspiration and celebrations. But the real success of the festival came from the dynamic array of films and the relentless filmmakers who wouldn’t let their voices go unheard. I had the pleasure of sitting down and chatting with several of the filmmakers- included Henry Barrial of The House That Jack Built, Yoruba Richen of The New Black, and Jake Goldberger of Life of a King.
Director Henry Barrial of The House That Jack Built
The House That Jack Built is the gripping tale of a Puerto Rican-American family, centering on Jack (E.J. Bonilla, FOUR, Mamitas), a drug dealer who uses the money to buy an apartment building in the Bronx- moving in his entire family in order to recapture what he remembers as a tranquil childhood. But things soon begin to unravel when his efforts are challenged by his family’s overt dysfunction. Written 20 years ago by the late Joseph B. Vasquez (Hangin' With The Homeboys), The House That Jack Built was rumored to have had everyone from Spike Lee to John Ortiz to John Leguizamo attached during the two-decade battle to get it made. But it was ultimately Director Henry Barrial whom Producer Michael Lieber entrusted with the project, in large part, due to Barrial’s cultural relatedness to the material, in addition to the quality of his 2011 micro-budget film Pig, a film festival-favorite.
“I am a first generation Cuban-American, so I related to this story culturally and on a family level,” Barrial said during our interview. “Like many first generation Americans, you sort of straddle the line between both cultures. And for me, it was an opportunity to tell a Shakespearian-like drama and stretch myself as a storyteller.”
Barrial had his work cut out for him, challenged with interpreting a work that was so deeply personal to Vasquez before his death in 1995, while still being free to make his own choices. Careful not to lose any of the magic that was already present in the script, Barrial updated the slang the characters used and little else. He also chose to work with a primarily Caribbean-Latino cast while shooting in the Bronx in order to maintain the authenticity of the culture that was present all over the pages of Vasquez’s script. “Because Joe had passed away, I couldn’t pick his brain, but I had a deep understanding for the cultural ins and outs of the material,” Barrial said. “And Producer Michael Lieber, a friend to Joe, had promised him on his death-bed that he would make the film. But Michael believed in me, and he told me to make the film my own.”
The interesting thing was the unexpected lesson regarding diversity that Barrial learned from Vasquez’s most famous work, the 1991 cult-classic Hangin' With The Homeboys. A semi-autobiographical story following the journey of four young men, two African-American and two Puerto-Rican, during a night out in New York City, Hangin' With The Homeboys began the work over 20 years ago that Barrial is now furthering with The House That Jack Built. “When I watched Hangin' With The Homeboys, it blew me away because it presented characters that were just like me,” he said, “and I was struck that I had never seen that depiction before. When you watch something that is specific to your experience, and you realize that it’s something you haven’t seen before, you start to become aware of the glass ceiling that you never quite noticed. And I had that experience with Hangin' With The Homeboys.”
The first time, however, that Barrial experienced a self-imposed glass ceiling of sorts was in college when he decided the world of science wasn’t the world he wanted to live in. A psych major, Barrial took an acting class one semester to satisfy a general elective, and there began his love affair with the arts. “The psych department was very boring; most psych undergraduates are very concerned with looking neurotic or mentally ill in some way, so it was a very conservative environment,” he said. “And then I took an acting class, and everybody was all over the place. It was exciting and I was really attracted to it.”
It was an attraction that ultimately sustained him through the 1999 production of his first short film The Lonelys, which won top honors at the San Francisco International Film Festival. “It was a natural instinct of mine to make films,” he shared, “and I don’t think it’s a choice; I think it’s a calling. After I made The Lonelys, I thought to myself, ‘This is it. This is what I want to do with my life.’ And I’ve been working on becoming a better director ever since.”
And ever since, Barrial has been conquering the independent film world with films like Some Body, which created a note-worthy buzz during the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, the 2011 thriller Pig, winner of the Best Feature Film award at the London International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastical Film, and now with The House That Jack Built, an official selection of the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival. “I felt very honored to premier at the L.A Film Festival,” Barrial confided. “For a filmmaker, part of the attraction to film festivals is the power they yield as far as being able to legitimize your film. But the other thing I felt good about in terms of the L.A Film Fest is the fact that when you screen your film, the screenings are packed. And that gives you a sense of how the film is doing. I’ve had a film at Sundance before, and it was great- but this has probably been my best experience at a festival.”
Next for Barrial is his untitled sci-fi drama about an ornithologist who spends six weeks in the Amazon rainforest with her family on a global warming research mission, only to find that the world has drastically changed when she returns to civilization. “I’m writing the script now, and it deals with this concern that we are heading down a path, technologically speaking, that we should be aware of,” he said. “So it’s this idea that just being off the grid for six weeks in this exponential advancement of technology can be an eternity.” He’s also working on a piece titled Final Girl where he’s experimenting with combining genres. “It’s Usual Suspects meets a slasher film,” he said, “so I’m experimenting with combining genres like horror and sci-fi, and bringing something very personal and specific to it.”
Yes, The House That Jack Built is only one example of the quality of work that Henry Barrial produces, and after hearing him talk so passionately about his craft, it’s apparent that he is already the director I suspect he wants to become. “Filmmaking is what I’m best at, and other than spending time with my family, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.
For more information on The House That Jack Built, visit www.thehousethatjackbuiltmovie.com.
Director Yoruba Richen of The New Black
It was 2008 when Proposition 8- created by opponents of same-sex marriage- was passed in California, stripping LGBT citizens of their right to marry after the California Supreme Court had just legalized same-sex marriage in California only a few months prior. The year 2008 was also the year that Senator Barack Obama became President Barack Obama. And while many in the LGBT community had rallied behind Obama during his campaign- playing a major role in his victory over John McCain- the media painted the picture that African-Americans were at fault for the passing of Proposition 8, allegedly rallying behind the measure in large numbers according to reports that were later proved inaccurate.
“The narrative immediately became how African-Americans were to blame for the loss of marriage equality, and I wanted to look at why these two communities were being pitted against each other, and what that was about,” Richen confided during our phone interview. “So when I started digging into it, I found that there were these different dynamics that were really complicated. The influence of the black church, for example, and how the Christian right had strategized to work with powerful black-church figures. And I had a feeling that this would only continue in the political scene, and, of course, it has.”
True to the nature of any leader, Richen set out to find answers. And so began her three-year journey into The New Black, a pointed documentary dissecting the African-American communities relationship to LGBT issues following the recent marriage equality initiative and the fight for equal rights. Shot over three years, Richen takes us on this investigative journey through the eyes of her subjects, including Sharon Lettman-Hicks, Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the National Black Justice Coalition, Karess Taylor-Hughes and Samantha Master, both community activists in support of the Human Rights Campaign, and Pastor Derek McCoy, President of the Maryland Family Alliance- an organization in opposition to marriage equality.
“It was important to me to tell the story from both points of view from the very beginning because what the film does is reveal the evolution that is happening within the African-American community regarding the issue of marriage equality,” Richen confided. “When you look at the polls, you see that within the last couple of decades, the attitudes regarding gay rights have shifted really quickly with young people leading the way. And I think the film shows the new conversations that are happening within the black community around this issue.”
The film is also causing conversation amongst a diverse array of festival attendees, with two packed screenings at this year’s L.A. Film Festival, and a Best Feature Film Award at this year’s AFI Docs Film Festival in our nation’s capital. “Having The New Black at the L.A. Film Festival was great; it was a great way to premier the film in California where it all started,” she confided. “People were very enthusiastic about the film and supportive, and that was amazing because it really demonstrates how the audience is responding to the film.”
Documentary filmmaking is something that Yoruba has responded to exceptionally well since her days in graduate school. Working on a graduate degree in City Planning at the University of California, Berkeley, Richen had mastered the art of writing research papers on issues surrounding the community, but she wanted to up her game and try something a little more creative in terms of conveying the research she had gathered on welfare reform in the 90’s. “A friend of mine and I had decided to make a short video about the welfare changes that were coming down at the time, and how that was going to affect the black community in San Francisco,” she said. “It was literally in the editing room that I had the “aha” moment where I saw a way to combine my passion for research, policy and what was happening in peoples lives with storytelling. And it was then that I realized that documentary filmmaking was something I wanted to do.”
Since then, Richen has been enthralling viewers with entertaining and informative true stories, spending three years as an associate producer with the investigative unit of ABC News, as well as working as a producer with the independent news program Democracy Now. She has also directed and produced films all throughout the U.S. and beyond. Her previous documentary Promised Land, which followed the journey of two black communities in South Africa as they set out to recover the land that their ancestors were removed from during apartheid from white owners, received a Diverse Voices Co-Production Fund Award from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 2010 and the Fledging Fund award for Social Issue Documentary.
But for Richen, while the recognition is appreciated, it’s really about opening minds and uncovering the truth. “What I learned in terms of The New Black is that for the African-American community, the debate around gay marriage is really bigger than just marriage,” she commented. “It’s really about how African-American families have not been allowed to be legitimized in our society- whether it be due to slavery, or institutional barriers- and this debate becomes about how we imagine ourselves in society and our desire to be normalized. So we can understand that desire in other groups; however, we’ve always had a different way of conceiving of families, and that debate around family is the underlying issue in the film.”
And for the tireless and immovable Yoruba Richen, the work is far from over, as she is now turning her attention to the recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court. “On one hand, we’re celebrating the victory over DOMA, and on the other hand, there’s been the roll back of our voting rights. And I think that black people have come a long way in supporting gay marriage. Now, I‘d like to see the gay community really take up the issue of voting rights, making sure that voting rights remain for people of color in this country, a lot of whom are LGBT.”
For more information on The New Black, visit http://www.newblackfilm.com/.
Writer/Director Jake Goldberger of Life of a King
I caught up with Director Jake Goldberger, the mastermind behind the 2009 dark comedy Don McKay, on the red carpet for his newest film Life of a King. Humbled by all the attention, he was almost nervous during our interview, and understandably so. This is only his second feature film, Don McKay, starring Thomas Haden Church and Elisabeth Shue, being his very first. An official selection of this year’s L.A. Film Festival- starring Oscar-winning Cuba Gooding Jr.- Life of a King tells the true story of Eugene Brown, an ex-con with a commitment to teaching disenfranchised, inner-city youth life lessons and strategies for success through the game of chess.
“The fact that Eugene Brown was released from prison after two decades, and used the game of chess to alter the lives of young people was extremely inspiring to me,” Goldberger said, “and I knew I had to make this film.” Goldberger was inspired, but, surprisingly, he chose not to meet the real Eugene Brown until the last day of shooting- primarily using his research and telephone conversations with Eugene as his entry into the writing process. “I’m the kind of person that when I get involved with somebody on a personal level, it’s hard for me to be creative when telling their personal story,” he admitted. “And I think Eugene trusted the writing; he read the finished script, and it was something he felt confident about.”
And writing a script about the life of someone as transforming and undeniable as Eugene Brown couldn’t have been easy. Brown, who had multiple run-ins with the police in his youth, learned the game of chess while serving 18 years in prison after an armed robbery conviction. Looking to make the best of his time, he learned to play chess, and transformed his victim mentality into that of a king. “Now that I’m teaching young people to play chess, what I tell them is to identify themselves as the king,” Brown said during our interview. “As the king, you are the thinker, and you have to think before you move. Life is the same way. And a lot of these kids, once they find that they can do well at something they originally thought they couldn’t do at all, there is a paradigm shift. And it opens doors in other areas because they find out that their thinking can get them anywhere they want to go.”
Goldberger had first heard of Brown’s story on an episode of ABC Nightline while preparing to shoot Don McKay, and afterwards, quickly went to work on writing the script for Life Of A King. “All of the characters are combinations of several students that Eugene has taught,” Goldberger said. “And many of them have gone on to great success in college.” Ironically, however, it was this relentless commitment to seeing his students succeed that created resentment in his own children being that he was absent during the majority of their childhood due to his incarceration. And this was a dynamic that was perfectly executed by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Rachel Thomas, who played the role of Eugene’s daughter Katrina in the film. “I wanted to show the struggle that Eugene went through to build his students up, while also trying to rebuild a relationship with his own kids,” Goldberger shared. “I really liked the idea of him being in a position where he was making avoidable mistakes while trying to teach his students how to avoid them.”
In the end, Brown fulfills on his mission to empower young people- both in the film and in reality- having created the non-profit Big Chair Chess Club in Washington D.C. where he grew up. Members have competed and been successful in both the National Scholastic Chess Tournament as well as the Super-National Chess Tournament, and Brown is also planning to expand his services to include job training and placement, apprenticeship, computer literacy skills and after school tutoring.
“One of the things that separates my chess club from others is we don’t just push chess pieces around and say, ‘I beat you.’ If you can’t walk away with an understanding that the choices you make cause you to be where you are, then we haven’t done our job,” Brown shared. “This isn’t just about teaching chess, it’s about teaching young people to rationalize and to use good sense and intelligence.” Now, thanks to Goldberger, Eugene Brown’s mission has undoubtedly spread, with an entire audience of festival-goers having walked away from the screening inspired. And with a third film on the way, Writer/Director Jake Goldberger is only getting started.
For more information on Life Of A King, visit http://www.lifeofakingmovie.com/.